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Thinking Outside the Box: MHC's Decision to Downplay the SAT

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Mount Holyoke's Decision to Downplay the SAT


  Yanitsa Hristova '05, one of MHC's first-years who opted not to rely on SAT scores to gain admission to the College.
Ashley Goodrich-Mahoney ’05 was a superb student in high school. Her grades were excellent, she captained the varsity tennis team, and her extracurricular activities included establishing a chapter of the American Red Cross at her school, running her own catering business, and interning at Amnesty International. But when it came to the SAT, Goodrich-Mahoney says, “I did not feel that my scores reflected my grade point average or were indicative of my academic abilities.”

Julia Hoffman ’05 and Yanitsa Hristova ’05 found themselves in the same boat. Both were high-achieving students with extensive extracurricular activities who felt their SAT scores did not accurately reflect their potential for success at college. Says Hoffman, “I am not good at taking standardized tests. I took a test prep course and I still did not do well in relation to my expected score. The tests do not measure much beyond how well you take tests.”

Over the past few years, standardized tests, particularly the SAT, have come under fire from educators and business leaders who, like Goodrich-Mahoney, Hoffman, and Hristova, question the long-term predictive value and fairness of these measures. Many have pointed to possible cultural, ethnic, racial, gender, and class biases in the SAT. And the proliferation of for-profit test-prep courses has raised questions about economic inequity, as well.

Last year, in light of these and other concerns, Mount Holyoke made submission of standardized test scores optional for students, beginning with those seeking admission for 2001–2002. Although the College was already de-emphasizing the test in favor of a thorough and individualized admission review process--one that emphasized a student’s high school performance, writing, intellectual curiosity, leadership, creativity, civic engagement, and social conscience--the formal decision to make submission optional thrust the College into an ongoing national debate on the value of standardized

Mount Holyoke received overwhelmingly supportive feedback from educators, students, and guidance counselors. National newspaper articles and editorials focused on the College’s new policy. President of the College Joanne V. Creighton, who has written editorials and articles on the SAT for a variety of publications, fielded questions in an online discussion sponsored by the Washington Post. Time magazine profiled how the admission office was evaluating applications without the test.

Early indications are that the evaluation process went extremely well. This year’s incoming class is one of the strongest in Mount Holyoke’s history and was selected from the largest number of applicants to the College ever. While 24 percent of them chose to hold back their SAT scores, the students in the incoming class mirror last year’s newcomers in terms of key academic indicators such as average high school grade point average (3.62 for both classes) and class rank (half the students in both classes ranked in the top 10 percent of their high
school classes).

“Reviewing the applications from submitters and nonsubmitters has convinced me that students who chose not to submit scores match students who did, step for step,” says Diane Anci, dean of admission. “I think we’ve realized our hope that we would draw students who are highly qualified for admission, but who, in the past, may have decided not to apply because they felt their scores did not meet Mount Holyoke’s standards.” In conversation with accepted students, Anci learned that a number of them had high scores but had chosen to block them as a matter of principle.

Supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the College has developed a plan to study how the SAT-optional policy affects admission trends at Mount Holyoke and whether there will be any difference in the academic success of submitters and nonsubmitters over the next five years. “We already knew that standardized tests do not give us much information about the range of intellectual and motivational talents we look for in students,” notes Jane Brown, Mount Holyoke’s vice president for enrollment and College relations. “The question we want to look at is whether de-emphasizing the SAT will affect our applicant pool or the high success rates of our matriculants.”

The Mount Holyoke study will help policy makers understand what role standardized tests play in admission decisions for highly selective schools. Many await the results with interest. Earlier this year, the test received national attention when the president of the University of California’s public university system recommended that the SAT be replaced. Soon thereafter, the National Urban League also criticized the test. Its survey of 200 Fortune 1000 business executives found that most ranked communication, leadership, and character as far more important than standardized test scores in for success.

As Goodrich-Mahoney, who was elected hall senator after her second week at the College, participates in a special honors seminar for first-year students; Julia Hoffman creates theater sets with a faculty member who is an internationally known set designer; and Yanitsa Hristova trys her hand at creating art with charcoal for the first time, their SAT scores don’t seem to matter much. And that’s the point.

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Copyright © 2001 Mount Holyoke College. This page created by Don St. John and maintained by Office of Communications. Last modified on December 11, 2001.

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